Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Stand So Close to Me

Living in a foreign country holds unexpected surprises around every corner. Things that you think are pretty standard turn out to be outlandish ideas. Like personal space.

Koreans don't do personal space.

In anthropological terms, we call this proxemics (technically defined as the study of set measurable distances between people as they interact). In different cultures people keep different spaces between them. There are different spaces, for example, between people of authority and their underlings, between teachers and students, between members of the opposite sex and members of the same sex.

My co-teachers are always, to use an Americanism, all up in each other's grills. They pet each other when bored; when they stand, they stand about two inches apart and when they offer food to you they expect you to just take a big bite of whatever it is from their hands or, in some cases, let them feed you.

It has taken me a while to adjust and not be startled when I end up in one of Rachel's vice-like embraces for no apparent reason. Even when Mrs. Kim took me to the immigration office yesterday, she sat way closer to me than I thought was humanly possible.

It has made me realize how little Americans touch each other on a daily basis. Back home, my close friends and I are pretty physical with each other (to the point where, in high school, a substitute teacher asked me and my friend Chauna if we were lesbians) but I would never go up to a co-worker I just met four months ago and demand that they eat from my hand. Its kind of sad, in a way, because humans are social creatures and flourish when they are reminded of their connections with others.

It’s not just in my office, either (I actually suspected this for a while). I’ve seen Koreans on the street holding hands with their friends and sitting on top of one another. This, however, only happens with members of the same sex. Like in India, members of the same sex are very physical with each other.

Though, thanks to India, my instinctual reaction to getting slapped on the butt is to turn around and swing for someone's nose, I appreciate that I'm being included.

This is interesting not only for the sake of my witty commentary but also because Japan, a country that, despite their hostility, is very similar to Korea (except that they can't play soccer. GO KOREA!), and has a very different perspective. In Japan, proxemics are serious business. I have been told that when offered a piece of food, you are not expected to pick it up with your hand or even let them place it in your hand. You are to put a paper towel on a nearby table and let the other person place it there.

I was trying to remind myself about cultural differences in Kindergarten today when one of my Apricot class, Min, kept on grabbing for my boobs. Now, this is a favorite past time of little children in Korea - grabbing for my boobs - because I'm pretty sure they think I’m smuggling oranges or something. Little kids have skewed proxemics to begin with, but add to it the Korean touchy-feely thing (which they have not figured out is only for members of the same sex) and you have a recipe for uncomfortableness.

But then again, I tend to agree with Ralph Emerson: "Children are all foreigners".

Update: A friend suggested a solution to people who get too close to you.

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